This post was inspired by a blog from Jacqui Nelson on the first woman poet laureate of California, Ina Coolbrith. Kudos to Jacqui for discovering this exceptional woman and a tip of the hat to Ina for creating her mark in the world.
A Canadian woman, Agnes Deans Cameron, has a similar story. Born in 1863 in Victoria, B.C. she became a trailblazer for women. At the tender age of 16 she earned her teaching certificate. Because she was so young, her certificate only allowed her to teach in a school where other teachers were employed. Her first posting was at Angela College, a girls school in Victoria. Later, she became the first female to teach at the Boy’s School and then Victoria High School. It was here she ran into her first conflict with the mores of the age.
A male student, who’d already failed his course four times, refused the assignment she gave him. The strap was the accepted punishment for such insolence, but this boy left school rather than submit to corporal punishment. He was suspended but his father complained. Eventually, Agnes was fired. The whole affair was written about in the newspapers, talked of on the street, and preached from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Agnes was a cause celebre.
Later she became the first female principal in British Columbia, with her appointment to that post at South Park School.
Deans Cameron was breaking new ground on other fronts as well. She attended the Chicago Worlds Fair, travelling by herself in an era when respectable women travelled with a companion.
She protested a pay raise for male teachers while female teachers were denied such an increase. As a principal the differing pay scales did not affect her but she felt “as citizens we have a duty to participate, a duty that we cannot relegate to others.” Her outspokenness led her into a conflict with the school trustees and, eventually, the department of education of the province. It was a long and twisting trail, but in the end, Cameron was fired, and her teaching certificate revoked. At the same time, the government was in the process of expropriating her home. As the sole support for her mother and sister, the loss of her living had huge consequences.
But Deans Cameron was not easily dismissed. She had already been writing columns for various newspapers. Now she embarked on a journey to the Arctic, riding on Hudson’s Bay trading barges and canoes, with her niece, Jessie Brown. As a result of this experience she became a popular speaker and writer. As well as the newspaper columns, she now penned a book, The New North: An Account of a Woman’s 1908 journey through Canada to the Arctic. The book was a huge success and Agnes was much in demand as a speaker, in Canada and the United States.
One would think she’d had adventures enough but Agnes was always curious. She raced bicycles in her youth. Later she joined the Canadian Highway Association for a drive from Nanaimo to Port Alberni. Sadly, this was her last adventure. A few days after the rally she died of appendicitis.
Ironically, Victoria, which had vilified her during the education debates, now welcomed her home as a favoured daughter. She was buried from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, one of the largest funerals the city had seen. The pallbearers, included the superintendent of schools.
If you’d like to read the full account of Agnes Deans Cameron’s life, her biography is called Against the Current and is available here.